They say the early bird gets the worm, but they also say all good things come to those who wait. In Texas non-compete litigation, both things can be true.
Let’s illustrate with a hypothetical. Dawn Davis leaves her sale job at Paula Payne Windows and goes to work for a fierce competitor, Real Cheap Windows. Company president Paula Payne calls her outside counsel and says, “Johnny, you’ve got to do something before Dawn takes her customers with her.”
“Have any of them left yet,” he asks. “No,” Paula says, “but it’s only a matter of time.” (#Hamilton)
“Here’s the problem,” Johnny says. “To get an injunction, I’ve got to show imminent harm, and the mere fact that she joined a competitor may not be enough.”
Paula Payne Windows reluctantly decides to wait. Then, over the next four weeks, half of Dawn’s customers stop ordering from Paula Payne and start buying their windows from Real Cheap.
Desperate to stop the bleeding, Paula Payne assigns a new sales guy, Eric Boonster, to the rest of Dawn’s accounts. But Eric doesn’t have Dawn’s experience, or her personal relationships with the customers. Two more customers jump to Real Cheap.
That’s the last straw. Paula Payne Windows sues Dawn and Real Cheap in Texas state court. Paula Payne asks the judge for a temporary injunction barring Dawn from doing business with any of the customers she serviced while working for Paula Payne.
At the hearing, Paula Payne Windows argues that its new sales guy can service Dawn’s customers, and that the customers will stick with Paula Payne Windows if the court orders Dawn to stop doing business with them. But on cross examination, Paula admits the customers are free to go to any company they want, and that she could quantify the amount of lost profits from any sales the company loses to Real Cheap.
Dawn doesn’t buy it. She gets on the stand and says, “I’ve known most of these customers for years, and there’s no way they will stay with Paula Payne if the court tells them they’re not allowed to keep buying from me.”
So, under Texas law, what is the correct ruling by the trial court judge?
(A) Grant a temporary injunction prohibiting Dawn from doing business with any of her former customers from Paula Payne Windows from that point forward. The loss of sales and customer goodwill establishes irreparable injury.
(B) Grant a temporary injunction prohibiting Dawn from soliciting or doing business with any of her former customers who have not yet left Paula Payne Windows, because there is insufficient evidence the customers who have already left would go back to Paula Payne Windows.
(C) Deny a temporary injunction. There is no evidence the customers at issue will buy from Paula Payne if they can’t buy from Dawn, and any sales Paula Payne loses can be adequately compensated with damages.
Personally, I tend to favor answer C, for reasons I explained in The Problem With Non-Competes. But to be fair, you can make a case for each one of these choices. You can find Texas cases to support any one of them.
In one recent case, the court chose answer B, the intermediate option. There is some logic to that choice, as we will see, but it results in a dilemma for the employer who is trying to enforce the non-compete and hold on to customers.
The Gallagher Case
In Gallagher Benefit Services v. Richardson, No. 6:19-cv-00427, 2020 WL 1435111 (E.D. Tex. March 24, 2020), Richardson admitted she was servicing over 60 former Gallagher insurance clients, despite her two-year non-compete. Gallagher sued Richardson for breach of non-compete and sought a preliminary injunction in federal court.
A preliminary injunction requires proof of a substantial threat of irreparable harm. The judge’s ruling on this element was mixed.
As to clients who were still doing business with Gallagher, the court found that Richardson’s admitted possession of a Gallagher producer report and servicing of former Gallagher clients established a threat of irreparable harm. Id. at *6.
But why would this harm be irreparable if Gallagher could obtain lost profits damages for the loss of client business?
“As to the violation of the noncompete clause,” the court said, “irreparable harm may be shown where future damages would require quantification estimates that can be avoided by an injunction that prevents the damages in the first place.” That harm could be avoided, and the status quo preserved, by enjoining Richardson from recruiting or working for any current Gallagher clients. Id.
If those clients leave Gallagher as a result of Richardon’s competition, the court acknowledged, Gallagher could attempt to quantify its damages. “But that quantification will involve estimates and thus potential undercompensation,” the court said. That irreparable harm can be avoided by an injunction against competition for current Gallagher clients, the court reasoned, noting that courts “routinely” enjoin prohibited competition in these circumstances. Id. (citing federal district court cases).
On the other hand, the court rejected Gallagher’s irreparable harm argument as to clients Richardson was already servicing. The court had specifically asked what evidence supported Gallagher’s argument that Richardson’s current clients would have stayed with Gallagher, id. at *2, and Gallagher argued that the court could “infer” that some of the clients would return to Gallagher if the court enjoined Richardson. Id. at *6. But the court said Gallagher did not prove sufficient facts to support that inference, including its capacity to service those clients.
Therefore, as to clients who had already left Gallagher for Richardson, the court found there was not enough risk to warrant disrupting the status quo with an injunction. Id. at *7.
“Without evidence of how many additional competitors Gallagher faces in the marketplace, or of Gallagher’s ability and realistic prospects of regaining any of the clients now with Richardson,” the court said, “Gallagher has not met its burden of showing more than this minimal extent [of] irreparable injury.” Id. at *8.
The court noted that “other courts have also been hesitant to eliminate a defendant’s book of business where the plaintiff has not offered sufficient evidence that the clients in question would return to the plaintiff.” Id. (citing First W. Capital Mgmt. Co. v. Malmed, No. 16-cv-1961-WJM-MJW, 2016 WL 8358549, at *11-12 (D. Colo. Sep. 30, 2016)).
Based on this reasoning, the court entered a preliminary injunction that prohibited Richardson from doing business with any Gallagher clients she serviced during her last two years at Gallagher, except for accounts she was already servicing as of the date of the injunction. Id. at *7.
The Gallagher Dilemma
Gallagher v. Richardson illustrates a Catch-22 facing an employer who wants to get an injunction to stop a former employee from taking customers with her. If the employer files suit and asks for an injunction before customers have left, it may be difficult to prove imminent harm, because the employee hasn’t violated the non-compete yet. But if the employer waits until after customers have left, the judge may take the Gallagher v. Richardson approach and say it’s too late to get an injunction to stop the employee from doing business with those customers.
So what is the employer with the non-compete to do?
Ideally, the employer would offer testimony that it has the ability to service the customers even without the ex-employee and that the customers are likely to continue doing business with it.
If the employer can get some of the customers to vouch for this, even better, but that’s usually hard to pull off. The last thing you want to do when you’re trying to hold on to customers is drag them into a lawsuit, especially when you’re asking them to testify against the sales person they like. And if the customer already wants to stay with you, why would you need an injunction?
So the employer may have trouble persuading the trial judge the customers will come back, and it may get stuck with the intermediate result of Gallagher v. Richardson. For that reason, some might say the lesson of the Gallagher case is that the employer should immediately file suit when the employee leaves to join a competitor.
That’s a plausible position, but it strikes me as too simplistic. What if you go to the temporary injunction hearing before any customer has left, and the employee testifies that she only plans to go after new customers? How are you going to show imminent harm? This approach strikes me as too hot.
Perhaps the “just right” approach is to monitor the situation closely and file suit as soon as two or three customers jump ship. Then you can point to those defections as evidence of imminent harm, but you can try to get an injunction to stop the employee from taking any other customers.
This still leaves the question of why damages would be inadequate. But the employer at least has cases it can cite on that issue—as the Gallagher opinion illustrates.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.